I was going to post this as a response in the comment stream, but though it might be worth its own post. It’s a response to Seth’s comment on my earlier post below.
Maybe I’m just oversensitive to theoretical language, so much so that I find the odor of it everywhere. You do, in fact, deliver a fairly jargon-free discussion of 7 lines from Joshua Beckman‘s Shake, but let me examine just one key sentence of it in the hope that I can clarify why I smell jargon there.
Here is the excerpt you quote from Beckman:
In the days of famous want
the people acted cruel and sweet
the music was boring and insightful
and if one found oneself in a well
the others would pull you from that well.
That is how it was. The countryside
unintelligible in its evaporation…
Then you write: “Most of the words here must be approached, consistent with Cognitive Semantics, via connotation–the way they interact with other words in the poem to create meanings dependent upon the reader’s cognition–as very few are used in their strict definitional sense.” Let me try to parse this, as someone not well versed in linguistic theory; as what I am, I mean: an ordinary reader.
The thrust of your sentence seems to be that Beckman wants me to somehow separate the connotations of his words from their denotations, and then arrive at an understanding of his lines based on those connotations. You say this is “consistent with Cognitive Semantics.”
Now, if I am to understand your statement, I have to understand at least the basic thrust of Cognitive Semantics. And when I attempt to do so, what happens? I am plunged into a sea of linguistic jargon: “meaning construction,” “knowledge representation,” “lexemes,” “closed-class semantics,” “Figure event,” “Ground event,” etc. One online encyclopedia explained that “cognitive semantic theories are typically built on the argument that lexical meaning is conceptual. That is, the meaning of a lexeme* is not reference to the entity or relation in the ‘real world’ that the lexeme refers to, but to a concept in the mind based on experiences with that entity or relation. An implication of this is that semantics is not objective and also that semantic knowledge is not isolatable from encyclopaedic knowledge.” For some reason I felt unenlightened by this, so I decided to try out what seems to be a seminal book by a leading Cognitive Semantics theorist. My couple of hours spent with Leonard Talmy’s Toward a Cognitive Semantics, a merry romp through vast meadows of jargon, convinced me of only one thing: “Cognitive-Semantic Poetry” is a term that could matter only to specialists who are talking to other specialists. Ordinary readers need not apply.
I know that the current MFA crowd has precious little use for ordinary readers, of course. They sneer at poets like Ted Kooser who actually keep ordinary readers in mind as they write, because they are writing primarily for each other and for their mentors, who will blurb their books and recommend them for teaching positions. Were this not the case, they would not be writing poems that require a complex specialist knowledgebase—what I call “Theory”—to be appreciated.
But let me swerve back to Beckman’s lines. If you seriously think that I (speaking as “ordinary reader” again) would excuse the vapidity of this writing because it so neatly describes the “Paradoxic” thread of CogPo, you have another think coming. Theories of connotation and denotation can’t disguise the fact that Beckman is slavishly imitating Ashbery. What does Cognitive Semantics have to say about that?
As for your other two threads, you quote 15 words (by my count) from Ed Dorn‘s brilliant 200+ page pseudo-epic, but surely Dorn’s shorter poems use some of these same strategies and could pressed into service. Also, as far as I can tell, you quote nothing from Zachary Schomburg‘s or David Berman‘s work, although you rely on them to define the “Absurdist” thread of CogPo. Again, I would love to see you address single, whole poems by any poets you choose. While I’m not a fan of New Criticism, I do think that theories need to be grounded in something tangible—in the case of poetry, words on a page (or a screen).
Having said all this, let me add that I’m not denying the usefulness of knowing the cultural, philosophical, and psychological contexts out of which a poet writes . An ordinary reader need not understand the fine points of medieval scholasticism to understand Dante, but knowing them does deepen one’s appreciation of his work. But when poets require ordinary readers to supply passwords, or know the correct secret hand gesture, or slip on their Flash Gordon decoder ring in order to be admitted to their poems, I think ordinary readers are perfectly justified in ignoring them.